Finding My Place Volunteering

“You forgot to peel it!”  Mildred (not her real name) said with some disgust, grabbing the cucumber out of my hand and roughly peeling it naked, peels flying into the nearby trash can and sticking to the sides of the liner in an interesting pop-art kind of way.

“Please,” I thought to myself, sighing, “don’t punish the cucumber for my mistakes.”

“And you’re slicing it too thick.  We have a budget here, you know.”

That was the problem. I didn’t know.  She had told me once how she wanted it done four weeks earlier and since then I’d been given other tasks.  I was a volunteer, in her kitchen one day a week.  I had not been going there long enough to get a feel for the routine, mostly because it changed each week.

Since moving to Massachusetts from Ohio over fifteen years ago, I have been looking for the right place for me to volunteer.  Growing up my mother was the ideal role model of a volunteer.  She was on the board of the local Friends of the Library Group that was instrumental in raising funds that took our community from first a one room to a two-room building and then on to a fancy new building.  I have a news clipping of her with a hard hat and shovel as they broke ground.  She registered voters, campaigned for politicians, made treats as a room mother when we were in elementary school, took food to sick friends.  The list goes on.  If someone was in need, she was there.

I enjoyed doing volunteer work myself at that same library, then tutoring other students in school.  In college I volunteered at the local children’s services board and eventually became a Guardian ad Litem appearing on behalf of children at Juvenile Court in custody hearings.  Years later, I became a Coordinator of Volunteers at a museum.  That was a paying job, not volunteer.  It was one of my many jobs that I truly enjoyed.  It encompassed my skills of organizing events, writing training materials, teaching and recognizing others for their good works.  You keep people happy and they keep coming back and doing more good work.  That is what you do to as a manager of volunteers – you recruit, recognize and retain.  It doesn’t hurt to provide them with refreshments either.  People, like pets, respond well to food rewards.

Early on I discovered that everywhere I had volunteered, the person coordinating the activity had a clear plan, gave me thorough instructions and was happy to have help.  They set me up for success and in doing so, set themselves up for success with a smooth-running event or project from which all of their clients or participants benefited.  Since moving here, not one single organization for which I have volunteered has set me or themselves up for success.   I arrived to stamp postcards for an art group – there were no stamps.  On another occasion for the same group, I arrived to do the postcards a second year and they had already been done.  I had driven an hour to get there to find the task already completed.

“Oh, we want you to help with this, instead,” they said referring to the writing and distribution of a press release.   I didn’t want to help with the new task, but what recourse did I have at that point?  If a volunteer selects a specific task, that is the task they expect to be doing and that is the task that they should be doing.  If they were given a choice of tasks and made a specific selection, they did so for a reason – they felt it in their area of skill, expertise or comfort zone at that moment in time.  To change it up is to risk them not accepting the call to volunteer again.

I wanted to help people learn to read and joined the literacy group only to discover that reading wasn’t part of the literacy scope in Massachusetts – they only taught ESL to immigrants new to the states.  I was okay with this as long as the person to whom I was assigned was here legally.  “Of course,” I was assured, all of their clients were vetted and legally in the country.  A year later, the lady with whom I had met every Saturday for several hours and helped through many tricky questions well outside the realm of literacy, admitted that she was in fact, not legally in the country.  Great, now I am accessory to a crime.

Other places had no handbook, no orientation, no training, or were like trying to join an exclusive club that did not want any new members.  It got to the point I stopped using the volunteer site to find opportunities and started to call charities that I simply felt a connection to and wanted to support.

“Hi, I was wondering if you needed any volunteers in your office to do mailings, design work or other admin duties?” I had asked the local Autism foundation. While it seemed an innocent enough question, I could hear the gears turning through the phone wires.  There was this short deafening silence as she thought about volunteers potentially making her paying job obsolete by doing it for free.  “No,” she said suddenly, “We don’t have any need for that.”    Click.  I would have to work on my opening.

I had fallen into a habit of donating money instead of volunteering. Then I saw a movie about a couple who were volunteering in a soup kitchen for the homeless and hungry.  In a very telling scene, a homeless man said to the wealthy volunteer that he knew it would have been the man’s preference to have just written a check.  That he “showed up” made all the difference.  It spurred me onto finding somewhere I could ‘show up’, give time, work in service to others in person.

It sounds more noble than it appears when you are peeling cucumbers.  The cucumber was just the tip of the problem.  Nothing I did that day in the kitchen at the senior center was right.

“Get the drinks ready,” she said, “We need to make more lemonade so fill that pitcher with water.”

I filled the pitcher, lemonade was made and I put the drinks out.

“No, it’s too early,”  she corrected, pointing, “they go over here first.”  I was willing to overlook the inefficiency of this arrangement of moving pitchers from the cold fridge to the warm serving table too early.  After all, it was her kitchen.  Her system – whatever that appeared to be on the day.

“Sorry,” I said for the first of what would be the umpteenth time that day, putting all the pitchers of ice tea and lemonade into the tray and adding ice around them in a futile attempt to keep them chill.  Later someone else would put them out in the cafeteria where diners could access them.

In the first twenty minutes I was there, that fourth week, I heard, “you’re doing it wrong,” at least six times.   I am not a person who hears those words often, but a commercial kitchen was not even close to the type of work I had done in offices setting up efficient systems and working on computers for thirty years.

In college, I did work-study with preschoolers at a rather progressive, for its time (the eighties), on-site daycare center.  There was a rule that we were to avoid the use of the words no, not, don’t, can’t – anything with a negative in it or a negative feel to it.  This was a challenge at first and then it became fun.  Instead of saying, “Stop throwing that water all over the floor,” to a child at the water table, I might say, “You will have more water to play with if we can keep it in the table.”  Or “Billy, I think Sara would feel better if you hugged her instead of biting her.”  We would rephrase everything to a positive, redirect instead of admonish.   We were to “catch a child being good” every chance we could.  It is an important skill, to look for things to compliment rather than correct or belittle in those around us.

Working with preschoolers gave me an excellent foundation for later work supporting adult executives and training sales people on software programs where I would again have to break subjects down to the simplest steps and foresee potential problems.  Success comes when you set people up to succeed, not fail.  Success comes from proper planning, thoughtful training and paying attention to how each individual with whom you are working learns.  If you are training three people, odds are they all learn in different ways at different speeds and likely one will be trying to answer emails and text while another will still be eating breakfast and the third will just be bored no matter how interesting you make the material.  Regardless, it was my job to know this and tailor the training so that it worked for all three.  I wanted to reach them all.  I want them all to succeed or I had failed.  And now, somehow, I was failing at cucumbers.

Mildred in the kitchen is an energizer bunny.  She’s at the grill, then the sink, then greeting an old friend, then at the sandwich station, then receiving the Monday order, then letting me know I’ve done something wrong again.  Admirably, she knows this kitchen through and through.  I do not. Considering she is of an advanced age and experience, I yield to her somewhat sketchy instruction and corrections which are, starting this fourth week, to wear me down.  I was the one, after all, who did not want to volunteer in the office.  I requested the kitchen.  I wanted to show up.  I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted to wash dishes. In the past the kitchen has always been a place of camaraderie for me whether it was at home, at the day care where I had worked or in the busy coffee bar at the Borders where I had worked.  (I said I have had many jobs, didn’t I?)  I had loved scraping partially eaten scones off plates and loading up the giant noisy monster of a dishwasher.  We were doing it together.

I entered her kitchen admitting that I did not have a lot of experience, but that I had some and was a good worker.  I forgot to add, I am a good worker when given proper instruction. I thought that went without saying.

I learned the first week that Mildred moved fast, gave half instruction and I needed to keep up.  I tried to fill in the blanks.  She told  me I was wrong and moved faster.  Hmmm.

I learned the second week that when instructed to make a sandwich for an order, I was to make it Mildred’s way without ever having been shown what that was.  This was true of soup and salad as well. Hmmm.

I learned the third week that even at my advancing age, I could be thrown off balance by this and feel as insecure as I did at new jobs just after college in my inexperienced twenties. Hmmm.

Wait a second here.  I am a volunteer.  I am not even getting paid to be told quietly in my ear so that no one would hear, “A little common sense is what you need.”   Hmmm.

I keep going back, because my go-to is to blame myself.  If I were better, smarter, and apparently had more common sense, she wouldn’t have to correct me so much. Right? But how do I catch on when there is no training, no demonstration of the “right way”?  Suddenly this reminded me of old bosses, two in particular, both women.  I was there to support them and both set me up to fail regularly so that they could point it out.  This wasn’t about me.  This was about them.  I am better, smarter and have plenty of common sense.   I have enough common sense to see that my success at volunteering will not likely be at this location.

Okay…back to the volunteer opportunities website.

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